Ketchikan High School’s longtime Automotive Technology teacher is retiring after this semester. David Sweetman has been teaching students how to do oil changes and repair car brakes for 14 years.
On a recent Tuesday, Sweetman led the seven students in his General Service Technology class into the Kayhi auto shop. They were learning to do a Battery Load Test.
After that, they moved on to checking the brakes on a retired teacher’s Subaru.
“We’re going to bring in a vehicle, we’re going to literally change gears here,” Sweetman said to the sophomores and juniors. “We need to put it on a lift. Let’s get going like the well-oiled team we are sometimes.”
They opened the shop door and one of the students brought in the car, which they rose on a lift. Then they removed the front tires.
Right away, they figured out that the brake pads on the car were worn out, and it needs new rotors. Sweetman said his next, more advanced class, will fix it.
“We treat it like an actual shop and work under the same conditions they learn in the industry,” Sweetman says. “Except a lot slower and more forgiving.”
Sweetman has been teaching at Kayhi for more than a dozen years. It started when he was working for the University of Alaska Southeast. Part of his job was to help improve vocational education in Ketchikan.
“We were very much concerned that there was not enough vocational training opportunities in Ketchikan, and we decided to see if we could revive them,” Sweetman said.
They decided to bring back the auto technology program. They got everything lined up, except the teacher. So Sweetman ended up heading the program. At first, he was reluctant, since he had been out of the auto service business for 20 years. But he ended up enjoying it.
“It’s a fascinating field of study, trying to figure out cars,” Sweetman said. “It’s kind of an adventure. You have to be a really good Sherlock Holmes to find out what’s the matter with the car.”
Because of all the practical experience students get in the auto classes, it ends up being a first step for those who want to get into an automotive career after graduation.
For example, 25-year-old Nick Galloway graduated from Kayhi in 2006. He’s now a mechanic at Karlson Motors.
Galloway took all of the auto technology classes he could when he was at Kayhi. After graduating, he went straight into the field, working at shops in Anchorage and Bellingham before coming back to Ketchikan. Galloway says the training he got with Sweetman gave him the ability to jump into work right after graduating high school.
“It’s really fulfilling to work with kids who don’t know much about something and then see them start to master the technology and solve problems,” Sweetman said.
Some of Sweetman’s current students want to go into auto service too. Junior Jacob Alvey says he wants to be an automotive mechanic in Utah. Sophomore Joe Harris also wants to be a mechanic.
They both want to continue taking auto technology classes next semester, but they won’t be with Mr. Sweetman. Ketchikan High School is looking for someone to fill his steel-toed boots.
“I’m pushing 70, it’s time for somebody younger to get into the field,” Sweetman said.
His youngest daughter is graduating from high school this year. He figured he would “graduate” with her.
“I’m a little nervous about it, but other people seem to retire and enjoy it, so I’m up for it,” Sweetman said.
But for the next couple months, he’s got students to teach and car brakes to repair.